Burns puts his stamp on 'The Address'

Students from the Greenwood School, in Putney, Vt., work on memorizing Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," a school tradition.
Students from the Greenwood School, in Putney, Vt., work on memorizing Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," a school tradition.
Posted: April 15, 2014

* THE ADDRESS. 9 p.m. tomorrow, WHYY12.

KEN BURNS spent years hoping someone would make "The Address."

An intimate, uplifting film about a Vermont boarding school for students with learning disabilities for whom memorizing and reciting Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" is a rite of passage, "The Address" struck Burns ("Baseball," "The War") as a great idea - for someone else.

"They asked me about 10 years ago to be a judge" at the school's annual competition, said Burns, who lives and works in New Hampshire, not far from the Greenwood School, in Putney, Vt.

"And I went and I just wept like a baby. And I said, 'Oh, someone should make a film of this.' But it's cinema verité [a fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking]. It's not what I do. Each year, I tried to come back. If I couldn't make the judging, I could come back while they were studying it," Burns said.

"I'd talk to [the students] about the significance of the address and was a judge in the years that my schedule permitted, and finally just realized that the 150th [anniversary of Lincoln's Nov. 19, 1863, speech] was coming, and I'd already stretched some muscles with 'The Central Park Five,' stylistically," he said, referring to the Peabody Award-winning documentary he made with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon.

"Why couldn't I do this? And so we embedded ourselves for three months with these boys and covered it soup to nuts, from waking up to going to sleep, to all the classes in between," he said.

The school educates boys with a wide range of learning differences, from dyslexia to autism. The film highlights many of their individual struggles, which range from the act of memorization to coping with speech impediments.

"Greenwood has this sort of special sauce of understanding the power of focusing, as they do so intently, across many different platforms and disciplines, on the 'Gettysburg Address' and giving them the satisfaction of accomplishment. Because we meet alums 10, 20, 30 years out who are still memorizing, doing well in life, and come back to Greenwood and feel like this was their 'new birth of freedom,' " said Burns, who also arranged for a school trip to Gettysburg, where he led a tour.

The filmmaker is also leading the charge to get Americans to memorize the address (see learntheaddress.org to find out how you can join a crowd that includes all the living presidents as well as comedians Stephen Colbert and Louis C.K.).

He was a sucker for Lincoln's famous speech long before visiting Greenwood.

"My daughter [Sarah] once gave me a gift at Christmastime when she was 12 of the 'Gettysburg Address,' perfectly memorized. It's still the greatest present I've ever received and I'll start crying if I talk about it too much," he said, laughing.

Memorization was once a major aspect of an American education, but "I think by the late '50s, early '60s, relevance was important and we disconnected ourselves from the connection to each other that comes from a shared body of knowledge: a whole bunch of poems, passages of Shakespeare, patriotic speeches," he said.

"My dad had five or six hours on his hard drive, which it just came from normal schooling. And I've got, from my own work in history, maybe an hour that I can recite to you. But we disconnected our kids from that and said it wasn't important. And that's a terrible thing . . . because we like to do things in unison, as much as we are independent, free agents - we do like to sing in church or, say, 'The Star-Spangled Banner' or 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.'

"Whatever it is, we like to do stuff together."

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

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